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Tourism: Beyond Memorial Day To Labor Day

For almost 20 years now, a number of leaders in the community looked upon tourism as a key to a brighter economic future for Chautauqua County. During most of those 20 years the County’s population and the number of jobs in the County have declined significantly.

Some other leaders view the effort to grow the tourism industry as merely the icing on an economic cake, composed of industrial jobs, jobs in health care, education and high tech sector.

Whatever the role of tourism is or can be in Chautauqua County, traditionally the tourist season has pretty much been Memorial Day to Labor Day (plus ski season at Peek’n Peak Resort). It is difficult to build an economy around 11 weeks out of 52.

The Chautauqua Institution season, for example, is 9 weeks long. A number of restaurants in Bemus Point only open for the summer season.

The challenge then is to figure out how to have a more year-round tourist industry.

Chautauqua Institution is exploring the opportunity to make the historic Athenaeum Hotel a year-round facility. That would be an important start. If the Athenaeum could use the fame of Chautauqua Institution to attract business meetings and conferences year round, that would add jobs to our County.

The National Comedy Center is never going to reach its projected attendance of over 100,000 visitors a year, about an average of 2,000 per week, on summer visitors and summer bus tours alone. It must be hard to attract a busload of 40 or 50 seniors to the National Comedy Center in March, when Jamestown is not even prepared to offer the bus tour lunch or dinner.

It will take a public/private partnership to begin to expand tourism into a more year-round economic engine.

The community can hope for the success of a Warren area businessman in relaunching a craft beer brew pub in the former Grant’s building one block from the National Comedy Center. The developer is being helped by a Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency low-interest loan of $950,000 and a Jamestown Local Development low-interest loan of $350,000, toward over a $2,000,000 project, as an example of a public/private partnership.

If this development is successful, visitors to the National Comedy Center and bus tours will have a convenient place for lunch and dinner. In addition this development one block from the Northwest Ice Area will make the Arena an even more attractive venue for regional hockey tournaments and ice skating competitions.

Hockey tournaments and ice skating competitions fill more hotel rooms than most other events. Those coming to Chautauqua County for hockey tournaments and ice skating competitions pay a 5% Occupancy Tax and an 8% sales tax on their hotel rooms and also sales tax on their meals, beverages and souvenir purchases.

In addition, if this development is successful, the developer projects 30 new jobs will be created.

Chautauqua County’s Occupancy Tax (bed tax) adopted by the County Legislature in 2003 currently provides about $1,200,000 per year to support tourism-related investment. The challenge for County leaders is to use that money wisely with an express goal of job creation. The main goal of County government supporting tourism should be to attract outside money into the County and thereby create new jobs.

Early County efforts to support making Chautauqua County a golf destination for Floridians and others (after Golf Digest had a cover story calling Jamestown the Best Little Golf Town in America) unfortunately did not get off the ground. In fact the County has seen golf courses close (Woodcrest, Sunset Valley and Point Chautauqua) and Peak ‘n Peek abandon one of its two 18 hole courses.

A small portion of the Occupancy tax could provide low interest loans for our remaining golf courses to allow those courses to improve the quality of their properties, to better enable them to attract golfers from outside Chautauqua County. Better, more financially successful, golf courses will lead to additional jobs in the golf industry.

Golf season here can be marketed as from April 15 to October 15, an improvement over Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Tourism can mean more to the economy and more employment than it has achieved so far. Tourism, however, is never going to be the foundation of rebuilding a strong Chautauqua County economy.

Fred Larson is former Chautauqua County attorney and is a current Chautauqua County legislator.

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